Should think tanks be forced to disclose their funders in order to participate in public debate?
Some believe so: ABC TV’s The Drum host Julia Baird wrote last weekend “it would be far better if think tanks were legally required to reveal all funding, so we can best assess contributions to public debate".
Quentin Dempster and David Marr both made similar points in recent times. Georgina Downer also copped a grilling on Monday’s The Drum from host Ellen Fanning over Gina Rinehart’s donations to the Institute for Public Affairs.
Many think tanks keep donor lists private: for example neither the progressive Australia Institute nor the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies (where I work) discloses their funders’ identity.
The implication that funding disclosure is necessary to assess think tank ideas, or that disclosure would improve democracy, is nevertheless flawed. There are good reasons why think tanks keep their donors’ identities secret.
Firstly, we believe ideas should stand or fall on their merits, not on what tenuous association can be asserted between the speaker and the ‘wrong’ vested interests to discredit them.
Too many have forgotten social democratic thinker Sidney Hook’s exhortation: “before impugning an opponent’s motives…answer his arguments".
Think tanks like mine work hard to maintain a separation between fundraising and research. There is no doubt that some of our funders have an interest in the policies we promote: for example, our supporters who run businesses would benefit from lower company taxes.
But that doesn’t mean we advocate for company tax cuts because they fund us. We do it because it’s the right policy choice for Australia.
Think tanks are values based organisations and people support us because they share our deep commitment to classical liberal values. No doubt Baird, Fanning and others do not intend to impugn our motives but any implication that we take our positions to appease our funders is unfair and untrue.
Baird’s piece rightly laments the growth of silos that prevent people of different beliefs contesting each other’s ideas, noting that many do not like the abuse that follows. Yet it’s hard to see how delegitimising the public participation of think tanks (whose primary trade id ideas, not abuse) will help.
And let’s be clear - protecting supporters from the real prospect of attack and abuse is another important reason for maintaining our donor’s privacy.
The increasing virulence of social media vigilante mobs has hounded businesses, public figures and even ordinary people out of their employment and out of the public square for daring to express their views.
Smears, slander and even threats of violence should not be the price of participating in public debate in a democratic society.
My colleagues and I tackle emotionally confronting topics, and our recommendations often run against the wishes of powerful vested interests. Our calls for more adoptions as a way of combating child abuse, the greater use of evidence in setting reading policy, or arguing to include the family home in the pension assets test, have resulted in personal attacks.
Our funders however should not have to deal with that, and many simply would not. There is little doubt that forced public disclosure of funding would lead quickly to attacks on some of those funders, followed by the closure or diminishing of several major think tanks.
Those who emerge unscathed would be the nakedly partisan or those dependent on government funding, which often has its own pressure and bias.
The argument over donor disclosure by those at the ABC also ignores another aspect of transparency: think tanks disclose their ideological position upfront.
Baird has noted herself on twitter that ABC presenters are “scrupulous in keeping political views private” in the face of claims that the ABC is biased. But wouldn’t transparency here also allow us to better assess ABC presenters contributions if we know they are as unbiased as they claim?
To be clear in my experience both Baird and Fanning are thoroughly professional, committed to combating bias, and scrupulous about assessing points on their merits, but the point is that contributions of all journalists, like those of ‘think tankers’ should all be judged first on their merits, not on the basis of perceived bias. However, too many filter everything through this lens, and they shouldn’t be validated in their attempts to smear and abuse participants in public debate.
If we want to break down the silos and combat polarisation, everyone needs to support the fundamental principle of dealing with the substance of ideas; not the identity of their speaker.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.